Posts in "Book Reviews" category

Thomas Pynchon Inherent Vice Reviews

Pynchon trumpetHere’s a roundup of some of the reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, “Inherent Vice,” which starts selling on August 4th. Of course, if you’re truly a devoted fan, you can find the midnight parties on the 3rd (hello, Skylight! I’d be there if I wasn’t flying out of state the night before!)

Salon Review: “Hard-boiled detective fiction” that you “don’t need a decoder ring to read.”

LA Times Review: Carolyn Kellogg says it’s “Thomas Pynchon doing Raymond Chandler through a Jim Rockford looking glass, starring Cheech Marin (or maybe Tommy Chong)”

The Independent Review: “Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s hymn to the Sixties, both homage and lament.”

The New Yorker Review: Starts with a discussion of Raymond Chandler and moves to say that “Inherent Vice does not appear to be a Pynchonian palimpsest of semi-obscure allusions.” Is that a compliment?

Of course, if you want to explore more Pynchon mania, go to the (unauthorized) site for all-things-Pynchon, www.thomaspynchon.com (what a URL steal!), which offers a Wiki to be rolled out on the 4th.

Review of “The Late Age of Print” by Ted Striphas

Late AgeTed Striphas will challenge every entrenched notion you have about the publishing industry.

You think Big-box retailers like Borders and B&N have put independents out of business?

Striphas argues that other factors often contributed to the indie’s close, that the big-box retailers rectify the social/financial inequalities present around indie’s, and that big-boxers have a history and a sense of place, too.

Think the problem of books is on the consumer side, that people aren’t reading?

Nope. Striphas argues it’s on the supply side, with how books are printed and distributed, the inequality of supply/demand (books are “ubiquitous and mundane”), and how books have been commodified since the 1930’s “bookshelf in every house” campaign.

You think the emergence of e-readers creates a new problem for the book industry?

Well, back in the 1930s, publishers fought tooth-and-nail against consumers exchanging books with each other, even holding a contest to create a derogatory name for book-sharers (the winner? Book Sneak).

You think e-piracy will be a problem for booksellers like it is for the movie industry?

If you do, it’s rather ironic, given that in the late 1800s, America didn’t respect international copyright, and thus pirated European books and sold them at a heavily discounted price here in the States.

I could go on, because there’s a wealth of data, narrative, and ideas here, vaulting this slim volume into the heavyweight class of tome. Striphas discards canards about the publishing industry and creates his own narrative, which makes “Late Age” fascinating to read, even if I remain skeptical at some points. I remain skeptical that big-box retailers ever capture a place or maintain a history in the same way an indie bookstore does, simply on the basis of my many interactions with indie’s and big-boxers.

And I’m not sure that big-boxers challenge social inequalities. If you want to talk about access to books, there’s always the (free!) library, which levels the playing field.

Some of the material here is just helpful information, and doesn’t steer the industry toward its next step. For instance, the third chapter exposing the King-Kong-like ascendancy of Amazon.com using draconian efficiency protocols on their employees is interesting from an employee-abuse perspective, but leaves you wringing your hands asking what’s next.

Also, the fourth and fifth chapters detailing the aesthetics of Oprah’s Book Club and Harry Potter’s copyright-protection wranglings around the globe both are intriguing narratives about our current cultural moment, but are more observational than argumentative.

I should warn you that the book’s a bit academic. Striphas teaches American Studies and Cultural Studies at Indiana University and he quotes Heidegger and Marx within the first few pages. He also has an annoying habit of telling you what he’s going to write about rather than just writing it (as well as summarizing everything at the end). These are academic protocols, I realize, but you have to expect your readers to be smart enough to get it the first round.

There are also some patchy spots with language that’s been infected by theory:
“In 1891, the accession of the United States to international copyright didn’t represent a Copernican revolution in its stance toward protecting foreign works inasmuch as it expressed the declining marginal utility of the discourse of civic republicanism relative to the development and consolidation of industrial capitalism.”

But if you can overlook the occasional academicism, I highly recommend this book. It’ll have you chewing over the book industry for a good spell.

Cao Naiqian: There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think Of You Late At Night

Cao NaiqianBefore I get to a micro review of the collection itself, I have to admit that I’m impressed by Naiqian’s bio. Growing up in a rural section of China, he didn’t start writing until 37, as a result of a bet with a friend. He still has his day job as a detective (!) for the government. He actually lived before starting to write, by working in a mine and in a factory and with music and as a farmer.

With a bio like that, you can’t help but be interested in the fiction.

“There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think Of You Late At Night” describes the hardscrabble life of peasants in a rural cave-dwelling town in China. Each of these thirty stories is short — think flash fiction, or short shorts — but accomplishes much with a Carveresque-style minimalism. Desperate lives generate stories about simple elements like food and sex, which reoccur frequently: growing food, cooking food, destroying food, and adultery, bestiality, incest. The reappearing characters, with names like Dog, Grunt, Zits We and Widow San, don’t want modernization or political progress or the afterlife, they want little more than pride and honor; full bellies and sated sexualities.

Stylistically, Naiqian has this habit of repeating an exact phrase twice: “It grew darker and darker. It grew darker and darker.” Also, in dialogue, he gives attribution for every single line, so sometimes you read “Heinu said” four times in a row without any other characters speaking. By piling on the words the particular information grows in significance. It’s reminiscent of the way Hebrew poetry in the Psalms moves elliptically around a subject by describing it in at least two and sometimes four different ways. But since Naiqian doesn’t vary the expression at all, it lacks the kind of aesthetic variation of Hebrew poetry. Instead, it captures the bare-bones existence of his characters — even the words to describe them, and their words themselves, are limited, spare, and can only repeat identical lines for emphasis, rather than by any kind of linguistic flourishes.

The details of this collection, especially about animals, come straight from the source. There’s true-experience tidbits about flies, such as the fact that fly droppings on food can’t immediately be seen, but turn black after a period of time, and also that a fly can still buzz around even after it’s been decapitated.

There’s also a spot-on description of a lesbian hen, and the way Naiqian describes her mating ritual in this excerpt is precise, especially the last line (I raised chickens, so yes, I know):

“Whenever the village hens saw Fluff Ball coming, they would stop what they were doing and hunker down, lift their tails exposing their red rumps, and allow Fluff Ball to mount them. Fluff Ball would strut, its chest thrust forward, over to the most attractive hen. It would spread its right wing like a fan and circle the hen. Round and round it would go before leaping on the hen’s back to do it. To maintain its balance, it would grasp the feathers on the hen’s neck in its beak.”

The translator, John Balcom, who also wrote an introduction, mentioned that the dialogue is particularly difficult to translate, since Naiqian uses heavy dialect. How it comes out in English is full of curses. There’s plenty of “fuck your mother to death” and “fuck your ancestors.” For example, this exchange in the first story, “The In-Law”:

Blackie said, “That fucking In-law is here for you.”
The woman said, “Don’t let him in. Wait till I put on my pants.”
Blackie said, “Shit, what difference does it make?”
Blushing, the woman said, “Why don’t you just tell him I’m sick? It is that time of the month, anyway.”
“How can I do that?” asked Blackie. “We Chinese always keep our word.”
Blackie went out to meet the In-Law.

A lot of cultural nuances are probably lost in translation, but the issue of class comes across loud and clear. The stronger pieces in this collection are the ones that don’t rely excessively upon dialogue, like “Widow San” and “Heinu and Her Andi.” Coincidentally, they’re also the slightly longer ones.

If you’d like to explore rural Chinese culture, this book will give you a look that is almost too close for comfort.

Requiem for a Book Review

The title of this post might be overstated. The Los Angeles Times book review isn’t deep sixed, it’s just shrinking by a huge margin. But in three days, on July 27, the LA Times will issue its final standalone book review section. The loss of a standalone section is a huge blow to Los Angeles’ rising literary cachet, and, as Steve Wasserman and other former book editors point in their letter of protest, a grave blow to the prestige of the Times.

Mark Sarvas makes an impassioned plea to pump up the online coverage. No, more than that. He suggests: “Rather than calving the book pages yet again, and grafting the limp remains onto Calendar’s derriere, let’s fold the print Book Review entirely. Stop it cold. Spare it further indignities. And take the budget of that hard copy review – including all physical costs (printing, a share of distribution) – and use those funds (with perhaps a bump if you’re really committed) to create a web-only Book Review.” I completely agree with him that the future of book reviewing is online, and that book reviewing sections should devote more funds to online activities (video, podcasts, more reviews — with hyperlinks).

But unfortunately, in the current model of newspaper governance, it seems that authority comes from print and online receives a trickle down. In other words, the print/online relationship is not even symbiotic, but parasitic — print as host and online as parasite. The amount of funds devoted to online coverage of a topic is almost always inferior to the print funds. This is changing, of course, but in the way that newspapers currently organize their funds, they are still primarily a print medium, most likely because the financial conduits still run with the physical page. So I wish the powers that be at the Times would be as visionary as Mark, dreaming up new modes of book coverage, but as it stands, I think if someone axed all book reviewing, some other part of the paper (celebrity coverage?) would snatch up the funds and we’d be left with a huge vacuum of coverage. Of course, we’re getting a vacuum anyway.

Also, by axing a print section and going all online, we’re losing a demographic, an older demographic that still reads in print. All my book reviewing sources come from online — if anything, to the younger set, book reviews on the printed page feel a bit antiquated, a throwback like black and white television and Cold War bomb drills. But a significant proportion of readers — as attested to by any independent bookstore worker who hears where people read about books — still stick with tradition and read print. I don’t want any readers disenfranchised, whatever medium they prefer. So given the loss of cultural prestige that comes from cutting the print review, as well as the demographic loss, and the necessity of a print section becomes all too clear.

Scott Esposito brings up the effect of this collapse on other literary outlets, specifically his own publication, The Quarterly Conversation. It’s natural that the rapid demise of book coverage in newspapers will force readers to shift elsewhere for news (of course, some readers won’t make that shift, and just pay less attention to books, continuing the downward cultural spiral of literature, but that’s neither here nor there). Scott ends up mentioning that he’s recently started paying contributors of TQC, which is wonderful, because this all ends up at money. Of course, I remember talking to Judith Freeman when she was writing a book review for the Los Angeles Times, and she said the money in book reviewing is so poor (even for a major outlet) in comparison to the time spent (reading all the author’s previous works) that it never makes financial sense to review books. It’s more about prestige and intelligent interaction with the literary world. Well, that’s what we’re left with. And may other literary institutions pick up the slack where the LA Times has left a gaping hole.

Nam Le: “The Boat”

So Nam Le’s short story collection “The Boat” comes out today, and after reading it over the past month, it seems he’s going to give Chris Adrian competition for best debut of 2008 (yes, I know Adrian’s published before, but “A Better Angel” is his first collection). Le’s got geographical range, that’s for sure, both personally — born in Vietnam, grew up in Australia, studied in the U.S. — and in his fiction, which takes place in Iowa, Japan, Iran, Columbia, Vietnam. Aside from geography, there’s also a wide range of genre. The first story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” is a self-referential story with a character named Nam Le trying to write a story at Iowa, and deals with the nature and responsibilities of storytelling, while “Cartagena,” involving child-assassins and grenades, takes on the mantle of an action tale, and the third story, “Meeting Elise,” transitions into more of a domestic tale of an estranged father’s relationship with his musical prodigy daughter.

The only place where the collection falters a bit is in the center, in the near-novella “Halflead Bay.” The pace slows down in this story as Le addresses the domestic realm, of small-time exchanges against bullies and a teenage love interest, and this pales against the more ambitious stories surrounding it. But the collection as a whole has this big-hearted, adventurous spirit that isn’t afraid to foray into territory with geopolitical repercussions.

There’s a New York Times dinner-interview with him, and Luna Park also has a interview, more Q & A style.

Roddy Doyle Review

Sorry for the slow posting here this week — I’ve been swamped with other writing projects. Hope at least that the links from Monday kept everyone busy. As for today, go over to The Short Review, which is, as its name suggests, concerned only with short story collections, and also the host of my review of Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees and other Stories.

Review of the Short Story Reviews

It’s lovely that the NYTBR reviewed Max Apple’s collection of stories, A Jew in Home Depot, the first collection he’s published in twenty years, but just strange that the review is coming out now, nearly four months after the book was released (The LA Times review, written by Tod Goldberg, came out in late November). Perhaps something to do with the collection being published by a university press? (John Hopkins University Press)

LA Times offered a single-paragraph review of Naomi Benaron’s Love Letters From a Fat Man.

The nervous, tender-hearted stories in “Love Letters From a Fat Man” are often set in that netherworld humans inhabit after loss — that strange, weightless, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other place that is a buffer between the painful present and the next chapter.

The Guardian has a paragraph review of Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley, which I reviewed in my last post.

Lastly, The Globe (via Kate) has two reviews of short story collections: A Grave in the Air by Stephen Henighan and Incidental Music by Carol Matthews. Here’s part of the review of the former:

A Grave in the Air is a collection of eight stories set amid political events in Eastern and Central Europe, spanning the half-century between Nazi Germany and the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. The narrative voices are wide-ranging, from a Polish chambermaid’s ruminations about the cultural cost of exile, to a Hungarian immigrant’s alienation from the anglo elite of Montreal.

Tessa Hadley – Sunstroke

Tessa_hadleyI decided to read Tessa Hadley’s collection Sunstroke and other Stories mainly because it had been nominated for the Short Story Prize. Hadley’s a Welsh writer that writes short stories of manners, usually with female protagonists, and always concerned about interpersonal interactions in domestic environments. Most of the stories in this collection share a theme of sexual misconduct, often of adultery, but also of sexual activity between people of vastly different ages. For instance, in the title story adultery is threatened with a stolen kiss; in the following story, “Mother’s Son,” a son confesses to his mother that he’s slept with someone other than his wife; in “Phosphorescence” an older married woman flirts with a thirteen-year-old boy. These activities are very deftly commented on by the other events in the story — a minor case of sunstroke seems to offer a metaphorical explanation of the momentary lack of judgment when kissing a friend’s husband, or the stench of a rotten egg symbolizes a man’s inability to stay faithful to his wife.

It’s appropriate, given this focus on the overstepping of sexual boundaries, that Hadley has many wise things to say on gender. She devotes a line, or a paragraph, to limning out the differences in how men and women think about work, or how a woman might imagine a man feeling about sex in comparison to her own feelings. This excerpt is from the end of “The Enemy,” which tries to set up the value of the protagonists quiet actions of cleaning as equal, worthwhile, and necessary in contrast to her male friend’s activities that fomented revolution (literally).

In her thirties she had resented furiously this disproportion between the time spent cooking and eating; it had seemed to her characteristic of women’s work, exploitative and invisible and without lasting results. She had even given up cooking for a while. These days she felt about it differently. The disproportion seemed part of the right rhythm of all pleasure: a long, difficult and testing preparation for the few moments’ consummation . . . In her tasks around the flat — polishing furniture, bleaching dishclothes, vacuuming, taking cutting from her geraniums, ironing towels and putting them away in the airing cupboard — she was aware that her mother and grandmother had done these same things before her, working alone in quiet rooms, or with the radio for company. In truth she had had a stormy relationship with her parents, and used to think of her mother’s domesticated life as thwarted and wasted. But she had learned to love the invisible work, the life that fell away and left no traces.

All in all, Sunstroke is an excellent read, although I would have suspected, if someone had described the book to me, that it wasn’t quite right for me — issues of domesticity in upper-class Britain just doesn’t set off the alarm bells of a “must read” in my head. Nonetheless, she manages to keep me reading through the quiet stories by offering acute psychological perceptions, and entertain me with ones like “Buckets of Blood,” which details the aftermath of a botched abortion. If you’d like to read it before the contest results are announced, you have until Feb. 27th.

I’m working on getting my hands on copies of Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam and Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard, the other two collections nominated. When I do, I’ll let you know.

Update: Here’s an essay by Hadley on reading short stories.

Beowulf

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So earlier tonight I found myself reading poetry to Mrs. BookFox, only it wasn’t exactly love poetry:

Unhallowed wight,
grim and greedy, he grasped betimes,
wrathful, reckless, from resting-places,
thirty of the thanes, and thence he rushed
fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward,
laden with slaughter, his lair to seek.
Then at the dawning, as day was breaking,
the might of Grendel to men was known;
then after wassail was wail uplifted.

We had gone to see Beowulf – and in 3-D, no less, with those fancy glasses, which I wore on top of my regular glasses – and I just had to separate the fanciful Hollywood tale from the original. So that was how I found myself reading forty-three chapters of Beowulf until after midnight (only excerpts of which I read out loud to Mrs. BookFox).

The movie holds rather true to the original – at least through the first half. Then it devolves into a soap opera connection between the Kings, Grendel/mother and the dragon. It does keep in some of the religious references that the Christian poet overlaid on the pagan tale (albeit heavyhandedly and somewhat anachronistically). And it creates ex nihilo a part for Beowulf’s wife, who isn’t even mentioned in the poem (obviously in order to hook the female demographic). But completely gone is the complex inter-relationship between the two clans, the Geats and the Thanes.

I’m not complaining, mind you. Because I know that staying true to the original would not make it a decent movie – I had no expectation that it should or would follow the original, I just enjoy knowing the difference and analyzing the difference. After all, the copy we have now was viewed through the lens of a Christian writing to Christian contemporaries, which obviously affected how the pagan tale was told, so I find it completely appropriate that this third degree away from the "original" (which was what? oral or written?) is changed once again to conform to the time and audience.

All that said, while I enjoyed the 3-D effects, that was probably the best part of the film. The use of live-action actors transformed into animation is a poor technique if actors don’t want to look like they’re acting through a bad plastic mask. Grendel looked like a pumpkin head at Halloween put on a child’s body and Angelina Jolie looked too much like Angelina Jolie. It took a lot more brain power to read the poem, but I derived pleasures from it that I certainly couldn’t get through a theater experience with the smell of fake butter in my nostrils and the grandfather behind me gasping every time a sword or severed limb protruded from the screen. One of those pleasures is feeling smarter, I admit. Another is discussing the poem with my brother, a Beowulf purist who harbors a penchant for ridiculously masculine tales that involve strong men defeating giants (he treats stories like Beowulf as instruction manuals for life).

I admit: in writing for this site and completing an MFA program, I’m often focused on the books coming out this year, a focus eliding even 20th century classics, much less the geriatric members of the canon (sorry King of the Geats – you’re a geriatric now). So I suppose it’s nice to have an excuse to go back and read Beowulf, which I haven’t read since high school or college, I forget which. I’m reminded of an interview with a professor who argued we’re almost doing a disservice to youths to make them read classics at such an early age, because there is so much that they can’t connect to yet. Give them a decade, have them come back and read it on their own, and it will resonate with the force of an earthquake. I think I agree with that. I have no memory of reading Beowulf the first time, but this time around I love it, hyphenated metonyms and all. It’s just so nice to hear the language as I read it, to hear the alliterative translation and the rhythm. No word yet on how Mrs. BookFox took it, but I enjoyed myself quite a bit.   

New Essay Collection by Umberto Eco

I’ve always been a fan of Umberto Eco, and not only of his fiction (of which my favorite is The Name of the Rose). Eco’s essays, thoughts on popular culture as filtered through his semiotic lens, are always good for re-conceptualizing the way we view everyday items. For instance, I’ve used his essay “Lumbar Thought,” in which Eco examines how the clothing we wear impacts the way that we think, in several of my English composition classes, in order to force my students to think about the possible repercussions of how they dress. Eco’s semiotic analysis is similar to what Roland Barthes does in collections like Mythologies, but I think Eco does it with more panache.

All of that to say that good old Umberto is coming out with a new collection of essays entitled On Ugliness (isn’t that a much better title than On Beauty, which he also wrote?). There’s an excerpt in the L.A. Times.

There’s also a review in The Village Voice.

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